Thursday, October 06, 2011

Spreading News

As I sit on a plane crossing the whole of North America from east to west I am daunted by what seems to be an overwhelming task. There are an overwhelming number of photos from an overwhelmingly gargantuan city that is New York. And how do I write here about every overwhelming moment? I am overwhelmed. I also face the prospect of diversifying my vocabulary which is somewhat over...powering.

Baby steps...I cut down 750 odd photos to about 115...these can include the Facebook extras...and have now got to just under 50. Acceptable in the blogosphere, but goodness knows how line spacing and formatting will cope. As for writing...I could split it into categories, or neighbourhoods or emotions or foodstuffs, like the different toppings of a supreme pizza. But I’m going to keep it simple – slice for slice – and work along the lines of chronology I think. But like a walk though Central Park, it could ramble and meander in all sorts of directions. So let’s get on the A train and see where we go...

Bright lights, big city

I arrived in the US into New Jersey, where public transport propelled me into New York state. No glamorous approach, tunnelling under the Hudson River to Penn Station in Manhattan, rising up slightly to a chaotic concourse before plummeting once more onto the subway. Street level emerged at Lexington Avenue and 53rd, and successful passage to my hotel...or glorified closet which was actually rather clean and cosy, nice big shiny showers, and free wifi so that you can stay inside all day and browse the web.

It was about 8pm local time and, with jet lag, I could have gone to sleep, but this is the city that never sleeps right? So I hit the streets which were not at all intimidating or scary, but brimming with life and traffic and police* and food carts. It wasn’t so far to Times Square which was, let me tell you, a bombardment for a bleary eyed traveller in some kind of hazy frenetic dream-like state. But I managed to check more free wifi, pick up my NY pass and take a few schnaps.

* it turned out I wasn't the o nly important visitor in town - Mr Obama was popping by along with many other world leaders for a UN summit

The next morning, rested a little and sussing out the outlook from the weather channel I decided to activate my 3 day NY pass, with the challenge of seeing as many of the 55 attractions as possible. Well, I had to be a little selective, and first up was orientation via the Top of the Rock...though finding this in the midst of the complex that is the Rockerfeller Centre was easier said than done without any orientation. But it was relatively quiet at this time in the morning and, while hazy, the views were expansive and immense. I love how, hundreds of metres up in the air, you can still hear the honks of individual taxis, the sound of sirens, shutters being drawn up and the singing of Frank Sinatra. Maybe that last one was in my head, but you know what I mean.

Here we are in Midtown, while Downtown (and yes, another song that was in the head quite often) was hiding in the haze. However one way to get there is to take a trip out on the water, via two hour Circle Line ferry. Starting off along a patch of water that a plane landed in a few years ago, the trip takes us south, where the skyscrapers of Midtown disappear for a while in those New Yark neighbourhoods like West Village and Soho. The southern point of the island is where the financial powerhouses cluster to precipitous heights, and then it’s not far up East River to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

Back on dry land – well, kind of...a couple of hours on the aircraft carrier Intrepid which is now an air, sea and space museum with plenty of throttle to keep your pulse racing – the Brooklyn Bridge was there to be walked across. Such is its popularity for walkers, cyclists, joggers and any other clown out there, they have ‘Pedestrian Marshals’ dotted along its span keeping things in order. Assistance for pedestrians seems to end as the bridge ends however, and it took a bit of milling about through leafy Brooklyn Heights to get back down to the parks beside the water. From here comes a classic view of Lower Manhattan, best appreciated after queuing in rain for a takeout pizza from Grimaldi’s – a famous and popular pizza joint, where you can only pay in cash in order to probably dodge tax and fund various dubious enterprises. Authentic they call it and with the rain letting up and the lights coming on, who’s to argue.

Liberty City

You know, walking the various streets and avenues of New York did feel a bit like being in Grand Theft Auto at times, only without the senseless violence and murderous screams (it really felt amazingly safe). It was I think the horn honks and snippets of random conversation caught in the air that reminded me of times in Long Lane with that in the background. Anyhows, I made my way through said streets and onto the subway at the very convenient 51st street station on the Lexington Avenue line, heading downtown once more for a trip by boat to Liberty and Ellis Island. You probably don’t have to be a rocket science to figure out what is at Liberty Island, and you can tell when you are getting close to Shrek’s giant grandmother as the camera taking activity increases.

The island appeared to be crawling with ants, but it turned out they were visitors and I was worried it would all be a bit too much of a Freedom Fries theme park. And yeah, there is a giant gift shop with every conceivable Statue of Liberty trinket you could imagine. But there’s also a surprising amount of space, and a rather refined, genteel atmosphere among the trees and lawns surrounding her lady.

I was very pleased to find I had a ‘Pedestal’ ticket, which meant I could walk up to her feet and through the excellent museum which detailed the design, planning and building of the statue. Did you know that her insides were designed by the same bloke who did that big tower in Paris? And that originally she was going to be filled with camembert? All in all she’s rather impressive and can you just imagine voyaging to the new world, a migrant or well-heeled posh chick on a cruise, and this greets you as you enter New York harbour. It would make hairs stand up on the back of your neck I reckon.

Those hairs would likely have flattened dramatically on reaching Ellis Island, which was essentially an offshore processing centre for migrants. Usually (so it said) they were sorted out in about five hours and then sent on their way to New York and beyond, timeframes only Julia Gillard could dream of. Others however could spend a lot longer here for testing, checking, probing or sending back, which probably would have pleased Tony Abbott.

The centrepiece was the ‘great hall’, and it doesn’t take much to picture swarms of migrants queuing and waiting and jostling and scaring the white middle classes with their foreign talk and funny food. The beauty of it though is that the museum strongly recognises the benefits of migrants to the USA, and how they have made New York what it is (want a bagel, schmuck?). It also had a great view back to Manhattan, though I got in the way for some reason and ruined it.

Back on Manhattan I walked from the ferry terminal into the downtown financial heartbeat, taking in Wall St, Trinity Church, Starbucks, Century 21 and the mammoth, chaotic construction site that is the World Trade Center. Ten years on and a big tower is rising, but much remains behind closed doors. There is a memorial but this requires advance ticketing and, understandably, tight security. Round the corner though and a small site provides a sobering minute-by-minute account of September 11 2001, as well as a gift shop for 911 memorabilia. Everything but the gift shop was thought provoking... you have to say as an act of terror the attacks were audacious in their planning and execution – the timeline of that day reminded me of that. But they were just that – an attack of terror – and nothing can justify what was done to thousands of innocent people going about their normal, proactive, productive life, and the hurt to their families that were left behind.

The WTC area was a strange place, part memorial part construction site part nothing. On a much lighter note, the end of the day heralded magic that conjured up art deco 1930s magnificence of a city on the rise, glitz and glamour of a pearl studded age. It was approaching dusk as I entered the shiny marble hallway of the Empire State Building and, like a giant hairy ape, made my way up several queues and elevators to the 86th floor. Before me a spectacle like no other as the city turned its lights on and continued to never sleep.

One of the things about the New York skyline compared to some of the other cities I’ve been to is the relative age of some of the skyscrapers. It’s not all 21st century steel and glass in a race to be the biggest (in which China is leading the field), but solid bricks and mortar, albeit often with quirky flourishes and art deco trimmings. One of the more interesting snippets about Empire State that I learnt was that it was in a race with the Chrysler building a few blocks away to become New York’s mightiest tower. The Chrysler building had a top secret plan to be the biggest, an additional swirly glass tower, which is a rather splendid design. But the Empire State also has a sneaky plan for an additional radio tower, and topped out and still tops out as New York’s highest. Such is man’s insatiable desire to achieve the biggest erection.

Rainy brainy days

My initial confidence and success in negotiating New York via subway and foot dissipated over the next couple of days as trains went where they were not supposed to, lines were closed, and my internal compass went askew. But luckily I found myself at Grand Central station on Friday morning, grand being the operative word. A huge cavernous space making it the busiest, yet seemingly calmest, rail station in New York.

From here I wandered aimlessly at street level for a while, before jumping on the correct metro to the Upper West Side, where spots of rain were starting to hit the imposing steps of the Natural History Museum. Well, this had about as much natural history as you could cram into a huge, elaborate building, which is an awful lot. There were animals and people and space planets and tools and trinkets and trees and fishes, and everyone from schoolchildren to dinosaurs. There was a hall for a big whale, another for a big dinosaur, another for a big boat and another for a big planet. Some of the dioramas were especially impressive, a window onto the diversity of landscapes and creatures in the United States and other alien lands, like Australia.

After a few hours here I was feeling somewhat drained, so decided to head back to my little room for a rest. The timing was immaculate, as I managed to sync the walking from the subway to my hotel part with the biggest downpour possibly in the history of the universe. I did get a nap, but was it worth it? To be honest, the nap didn’t seem to help too much and I was in two minds to go to another museum and walk around looking at endless exhibits and rooms and generally getting lost in nooks and crannies. But conscious that my three days of NY pass freedom were soon to end, I embarked on a far easier and less wet journey to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or just simply The Met. It was one of my better decisions.

I don’t think you have to be too fussed about art to love this place. The building is magnificent and seems to be perfectly designed to complement and showcase what is on show. There are whole halls devoted to a particular reference point, from Egyptian temples to medieval chambers to confederation era houses. There is so much space that you can have rooms all to yourself and feel like they have especially opened it up to you and you only. There are, for those of you who can’t get enough titillation, women’s breasts and men’s butts on display. There is free wifi. Oh, plus about three million items of art or something – relics from prehistory right up to modern times from all over the world (including a Turner painting of Saltash, Cornwall). Some of the paintings even I recognised as being famous and invaluable.

You cannot, simply cannot, read every single display or even see every different thing in a few hours. But I found the place somewhat inspiring to indulge in what you could consider my creative outlet, i.e. taking copious amounts of boring pictures. Call it art, or call it copious amounts of boring pictures, but here some of the snaps I took along the way...

Such a cultured day ended with a less cultured but no less impressive end – a good feed for six dollars from the Halal Guys food cart. Apparently, and somewhat alarmingly, my Lonely Planet described their secret white sauce as making all the difference, but to be fair it complemented the rice and chicken and lamb gyro perfectly.

Village people

Saturday arrived, signalling the end of my NY pass, and all of a sudden I was at a relative loss of what to do. The answer always lies in ambling aimlessly with some general sense of direction, so I headed out to catch the subway south to a few different neighbourhoods. Only my subway fun continued with the F line operating on the M line or something unfathomable and, after trying several stations that were closed, popped into a nearby deli and consoled myself with an excellent BLT.

Eventually I made it to somewhere approximating where I wanted to explore – Washington Park in Greenwich Village. While it was nothing too exciting, it struck me how different New York was on a weekend, with people chilling, exercising, dog-walking, brunching, and even being neighbourly. It was, in fact, relatively calm and orderly.

Most hustle and bustle appeared to be directed at market stalls scattered around various squares and circles, as I ventured on to West Village and over to Chelsea. Here, what seemed to be something approximating a car boot sale was in full action. Just like my intimate memory of booties, it seemed many of the people there had been attending every weekend for the last 50 years.

I resisted multiple temptations on my way further east to the Flatiron District, because I had a perfect lunch in mind – one of the tastiest burgers put together at the Shake Shack kiosk in Madison Square Park. Reminiscent of Brodburger love, a perfect end to a good few miles of hard neighbourhood walking.

Saturday was proving a very grey day (almost fogwalkish), but it stayed dry enough for further ambles in the south as the clock ticked on towards dusk. This time it was down in the deep south, and a stroll alongside the Hudson River to the pointy tip of Manhattan Island. Again, here were New Yorkers in their thousands... walking, playing sacker with kids, rollerboarding on heelies, cycling at 60 mph, or just sat in many of the cafes and bars along the route stuffing their faces.

A few were, like me, heading for the Staten Island Ferry and a free ride from Manhattan to, you guessed it, Staten Island. I wasn’t going to Staten Island for Staten Island, but to get an opportunity to wile away an hour or so on a breezy deck watching the city skyline recede and returning into its fold all lit up with wonderment. Somewhat amazingly the cast iron clouds which had been omnipresent all day failed to block out a sinking red sun, a perfect accompaniment for the old lady.

That was my last sunset in New York, for tomorrow heralded a change of scenery and, somewhat wistfully, I wasn’t quite ready for it to end yet. Thus a convenient and reliable subway line took me back once more to Times Square...Saturday night fever abounding. Never a dull moment in New York village.

Nosey Parker

And so, the last day came and finally we are getting towards the end of this ramble. I’m not on the plane any longer by the way. It’s over a week later and I am sheltering from rain in Portland (but that’s another long-winded story). But back on that last east coast day it was a sunny start and plenty of time to soak up one final New York classic, Central Park.

My foray into the park took me around the southern edge, spitting me briefly out for some lunch in a classic diner close to Trumped up tower. Then it was time to walk off that burger (yes another burger) in earnest in the heart of the park. Undeniably there was lots of greenery – big lawns, colourful flower beds, meandering ponds, woody rambles – but there needed to be in order to have enough to go round for the population of Manhattan, as well as their epileptic dogs. Thus for me, the park wasn’t really so much a botanical delight, but a place to observe and embrace fellow human beings. Call it people-watching, stalking, whatever, but I’m sure I was being stalked on a few occasions by equally obsessive camera carriers. I guess I made for an interesting photo, hiding in bushes with my zoom.

Of course, I didn’t really hide in bushes with a big zoom. For a start, as I so often do on such occasions, I put my small fixed lens on. And you don’t need to hide in the bushes, for people come here to be seen. My favourite spot ended up a place called Literary Walk, which is just south of the big fountain beside the boating lake. This was pretty much my final resting place as I completed several miles within the park, and was full of people and activity taking place. I played my part and read a chapter of a book (and I caught someone taking my picture doing so, oh how cliché!), while others rollerbladed, sang, played with pigeons, and bubbles, and crayons on the floor. An opera lady sang (quite beautifully in fact), and while she was not at all fat, you know what it means when the opera lady sings. Time and circumstance was perfectly aligned to finish with New York and a change of pace and scenery beckoned. I knew I would like New York, but at the end of five days you can see why they produce so many of those I love NY T-shirts, hats, fridge magnets, hoodies, slippers, business card holders, cheese knives, torches, socks, snow globes, toenail clippers, placemats, stickers, laptop covers, bottle openers, pants, key-rings, musical pens, travel pillows... because you simply can’t get enough of its love.

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